BEIRUT – The men receive a hero's welcome as they step off the green buses in Syria's Idlib province with guns slung over their shoulders, having been forced to leave besieged and bombarded towns and cities as part of local truce deals with the government in Damascus.
For more than two years now as President Bashar Assad pursued a policy of local truces, thousands of rebels and opposition supporters have been deported to the northwestern province bordering Turkey — a forced exile that many see as a calculated attempt to gather the fighters far from the capital, at a location where they can later be eliminated.
Already a stronghold of Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, the province is now home to thousands of Islamic militants — with varying degrees of extremist ideology — who have converged along with their families from the central city of Homs and the suburbs of Damascus, after capitulating to government forces.
"The government wants to prepare people, psychologically, for the idea that Idlib is the Kandahar of Syria," said Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist who covers Syrian affairs for the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat.
He was referring to Kandahar province in Afghanistan, the base of the militant Taliban's 1996-2001 government. He said the presence of so many Islamic militants would make it easier for the government and its allies to later justify a massive assault on the province.
Idlib is one of the few regions in Syria where the Islamic State group and the government have no presence, save for two small government-controlled Shiite-majority villages. The province borders Turkey, a key sponsor of Syrian rebels, and the coastal province of Latakia, a government stronghold. Assad's loss of Idlib city in the summer of 2015 was what prompted Russia to intervene to shore up his forces.
Members of the opposition fear that government and Russian warplanes will eventually carpet bomb Idlib under the pretext that it is a stronghold of al-Qaida's Fatah al-Sham Front, whose leadership is based there, and other extremist groups.
Since July 2015, U.S. aircraft have killed some of al-Qaida's most senior figures in strikes on Idlib, including Kuwait-born Mohsen al-Fadli, Sanafi al-Nasr of Saudi Arabia and Ahmed Salama Mabrouk of Egypt, who was killed in early October. They belonged to what U.S. officials call the Khorasan group, which Washington describes as a branch of al-Qaida that plans attacks against Western interests.
The province is also an important stronghold for Syrian rebels battling to unseat Assad.
Malek al-Rifai, an opposition activist who recently moved to Idlib from Daraya, said he now has a "five star" life compared to his conditions in the besieged Damascus suburb, where people could barely feed themselves. Access to the Turkish border means virtually everything is available in Idlib — not only food, but also weapons and other supplies.
Al-Rifai said he shares an apartment with friends and has been surviving on some savings. Other people live in tents, some of which have evolved into concrete dwellings complete with secondhand furniture. He said people mostly make a living by working for aid organizations, as taxi or minibus drivers, joining rebel groups that pay salaries or running small businesses.
Although their primary target has recently been the divided northern city of Aleppo, hardly a day goes by without government or Russian warplanes bombing parts of Idlib.
"The regime wants Idlib to become another Raqqa," said Hassan al-Dughaim, a Turkey-based Syrian preacher and researcher from Idlib, who lived there for most of his life until last year. The Syrian city of Raqqa is the de facto capital of the IS group's self-styled caliphate. Idlib city serves a similar function for al-Qaida.
Al-Dughaim said the Syrian government hopes that the presence of so many militants from different groups will lead to infighting. But despite the steady flow of fighters such confrontations have been rare.
Idlib is also home to thousands of displaced civilians from across the country, who were brought there on the green buses along with armed fighters as part of the truce deals.
"The regime wants the people to be as far as possible from the areas they were displaced from," said Osama Abu Zeid, a lawyer who advises moderate rebel groups known as the Free Syrian Army, who also have a presence in Idlib. He said that because of al-Qaida's presence, the government will present any future attack as part of a war on terrorism.
Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, agrees.
"By lumping the displaced hostile populations in with the extremists, you've basically confined the problem to one place," he said. "Once that is done, the regime will go after it hard and no one will be able to make much of a fuss internationally."